Book review by Richard Eder (published in New York Times, 12 Sept 2001)
THE APPOINTMENT By Herta Müller, 215 pages. Metropolitan Books.
At the start of ”The Appointment,” a young woman sets off by tram for her thrice-weekly interrogation session with Major Albu of the Romanian Securitate, or political police. By the end she has not quite got there, and yet, in a deeper, more desolate sense, she has been there all the time. Herta Müller, who managed to leave Romania in 1987 after her own long bout of persecution, has written a brooding, fog-shrouded allegory of life under the long oppression of the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. It was an oppression probably harsher than any in Eastern Europe, a harshness whose peculiar quality was its pervasive, impenetrable obscurity. Was she in pain? the dying Mrs. Gradgrind was asked in Dickens’s ”Hard Times.” There was a pain somewhere in the room but she was not sure if she had it, she replied. In Ceausescu’s Romania the pain was mistily everywhere; all but invisible, impalpable, unlocatable. I remember another Bucharest tram, looming out of the fog on a winter evening in the early 1980’s, the passengers no more than shadows behind the grimy windows; also an interview with a Foreign Ministry spokesman, just about the only official available for the eyes of a foreign journalist. What use were eyes? He and his ponderously furnished office were barely visible: lighted by a single 50-watt bulb. ”The Appointment” renders the horror of a society under a 50-watt bulb. The nameless young woman, a former clothing-factory worker under indelible suspicion for slipping notes (”Marry Me”) into the pockets of suits manufactured for cheap export to Italy, tells her story like one blindfolded and gagged. Its pain is all the creepier because of the indeterminacy of what happens and has happened to her. As the tram moves through Bucharest, the narrator recalls fragments of her past and present life. Her grandparents were evicted from their home in a rural village and sent to a gulag-like settlement on the harsh Baragan steppe, where her grandmother perished.
She married, for a while, a pallid slug of a man, the son of the same Securitate agent, who, mounted on a white horse and brandishing a whip, had terrorized and robbed her grandparents and their fellow villagers. Later, dismounted and demoted from police work, he is an unctuous presence at the wedding. One of the horrors of the time was the cheek-by-jowl coexistence of oppressor and oppressed. How to tell them apart: the neighbor from the informer, the postman from the spy? All is intermingled and formless. When the narrator’s husband does his military service, the father-in-law tries to seduce her and is hurt when she rebuffs him. ”You rack your brains to come up with ways of helping the children, and this is what you get for your pains,” he complains. For a moment, it seems, comedy will relieve things; but in the grotesque world of ”The Appointment” even comedy is a spy in the service of the terrible. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the world laid out in the course of the narrator’s tram ride is in a state of decomposition. As a teenager, coming to fetch her bus-driver father at the end of his shift, she found him having sex with a market woman. For a while she tried her own awkward attempts at seducing him, thinking it might protect him from dangerous outsiders.
It was an oddly innocent maneuver, and the innocence of the narrator, her efforts to assert her humanity, show up the corruption that surrounds and will betray her. They also transmute the book’s surreal nightmare tropes into moments of genuine anguish. Her messages in suit pockets are small insurrections; so are the bits of poetry she recites (Müller is a poet and a good one); so is her obdurate resistance to the overtures of her corrupt boss. Resistance insofar as possible, that is: on a business trip she lets him sleep with her, having no alternative, but perilously rejects him when they are back in Bucharest. There is her obsessed mourning for a friend shot dead crossing the frontier in the company of an elderly lover, and finally her brief happiness with Paul, a high-spirited mechanic who takes her on motorcycle rides. These spirited touches make her punishments more agonizing. The sadistic Major Albu issues threats, drags her around by the hair, slips a severed finger into her purse to terrorize her and painfully crushes her hand while slobberingly kissing it. At home, each morning, she practices clenching her fist to fortify her knuckles. All this under the interrogator’s sleek appearance and courtly manner. ”With Albu’s skin, age is simply there, as if his flesh had nothing to do with it. His age is a rank to which he has been promoted in recognition of his sterling work.” There is a faint hint she may be attracted; that augments the torture. ”The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face. It’s humiliating, there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it’s barefoot.” There is worse. Nothing in the narrator’s life is safe from contamination: not her closest friends, not even her lover. The last pages of the book depict quicksand opening beneath her; we know, and yet we don’t quite know, what has happened. For a moment we are in the same poisonous fog that is choking her. Betrayal is the fundamental theme of ”The Appointment,” unmistakable yet vague at the same time. Its particular instances are obscured by its universal presence. ”Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me,” Orwell wrote in ”1984.” In Ceausescu’s Romania the tree, twisted and starved, lacks the sap even to spread.[Source: NYT]